The Cardinals infield returns three regulars from last year but only has two players manning the same position and has one completely new face. But regardless of whether they’re old or new, I probably like all five players less than the general public based on early ADP data.
One of the two guys manning the same position is a Cardinal stalwart, Yadier Molina. I looked into Molina earlier this off season and his value derived primarily from his batting average last year as he provided more fantasy value with his batting average than any other catcher thanks to the second highest average at the position and a relatively high number of plate appearances. But he didn’t do the things that made him great in 2012. His HR/FB rate returned to about his career rate, so he hit 12 home runs as opposed to 22. His speed went away as quickly as it appeared, so he stole 3 bases as opposed to 12.
Without the 2012 power/speed combo that is basically unheard of at his position, Molina absolutely must have his average remain high for his fantasy value to remain high. That’s a little scary because Molina’s BABIP was .338 last year. To be fair, his xBABIP was .331 thanks in large part to a 24.3% line drive rate. But it’s just a little nerve-wracking to be drafting a guy that is so BABIP dependent when BABIP is such a fickle stat. For example, Molina had a 24.8% line drive rate and .344 xBABIP in 2012, but his actual BABIP was only .316.
If everything but his average were to hold and his average fell a bit below .300, his numbers would look a lot like what Buster Posey did last year. And Posey was just the seventh most valuable catcher last year according to our valuations. Because of the risk that comes with that BABIP dependency as well as the fact that Molina is over 30 years old now, I’m not comfortable with him as a top five catcher, but that’s what he’s being drafted as early in the preseason.
The other Cardinal infielder returning to the same position is Matt Adams. Adams basically spent the entire year with the big league club and was used almost exclusively in a platoon role. About 83% of Adams’ plate appearances came against right-handers, and Allen Craig handled about 56% of the first base duties. But with Carlos Beltran gone to the Bronx, Craig figures to spend more time in right field this year, and Adams should approach 600 PA as a result. Craig will still play some first base against left-handers, but not nearly as much as he did last year.
The problem is, obviously, that a lot of Adams’ extra PAs are going to be coming against left-handers. Adams’ sample against left-handed pitching at the major league level is only 73 plate appearances, but he’s been horrific in that sample. He has a 61 wRC+ against lefties and has just one walk compared to 25 strikeouts. Woof.
The good news is that he wasn’t nearly as bad against left-handers in the minors. In 244 MiLB PA vs. LHP, Adams had an .887 OPS with a K% of 21.7% and a BB% of 9%. That provides some hope that he may not be strictly a platoon player for the length of his career. But it’s clear that there is an adjustment period, and it’s hard to say when it will be over.
All that said, Adams does have power which is an increasingly rare commodity. He had a .220 ISO last year and hit 17 home runs in just 316 PA. He won’t maintain that HR per PA pace because of the extra at-bats against lefties and some regression in his HR/FB rate, but 25 home runs seems a very reasonable projection if he does indeed approach 600 PA.
The other returning regular infielder is Matt Carpenter who will be moving from second base to third base with David Freese now in Los Angeles. I also wrote about Carpenter earlier in the off season, and in that piece I basically just rehashed Eno Sarris’ take on his unsustainable 2013 run total. The long and short of it is that it is HIGHLY unlikely that Carpenter tops 100 runs again this year, and considering that he had 126 last year, that’s going to represent a huge drop in his value. And his value is pretty tied to runs since he doesn’t have much power and doesn’t run.
The only other top ten second baseman last year who didn’t really do much in the way of power and speed was Jed Lowrie who scored 80 runs, hit .290 and finished as the ninth most valuable player at the position. Carpenter will probably top 80 runs if if he gets anywhere near 700 PA again, and he’ll hit better than .290 (more on that in a moment). But if he scores 90 and hits about .300, he’s not that much more valuable than Lowrie was. He’d still easily be a top ten 2B, but he wouldn’t be top five. He’s being drafted as the fourth second baseman in early NFBC drafts.
A quick note on Carpenter’s batting average. You may hear some people projecting regression because of his .359 BABIP, but his xBABIP was .370 last year and is .355 for his career which spans 1000+ PA at this point. Don’t go fading Carpenter just because you think his BABIP and average might fall. Do it because the run total is definitely going to fall.
Kolten Wong isn’t new to the team, but he is one of the two new regulars on the infield as he’ll slide into the second base slot that Carpenter has vacated. My big concern with Wong is his quality of contact. He did a decent enough job in the minors of making contact in general with am 84% contact rate, but his career minor league line drive rate was just 14%. Instead, Wong hits a lot of balls on the ground. And that didn’t kill him in the minors because his speed really helped out his BABIP. I worry about him being able to hit for enough average at the big league level with such a low line drive rate.
If you’re looking for reasons to like Wong, his speed is the obvious choice. He stole 20 bases in each of the last two seasons in the minors and could be a 20 steal guy in the majors with enough PA. But another reason to like him is that he didn’t show a huge platoon split in the minors. Sure, he was better against right-handers, but the gap in performance wasn’t huge. That’s important because Wong could potentially end up in a platoon with Mark Ellis if he falters completely or if he struggles against lefties.
Jhonny Peralta is the only completely new face in the Cardinal infield. He’ll take over at shortstop and will be a welcome replacement for the combo of Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso who produced a whopping -0.3 WAR at that spot last year. As far as his fantasy value goes, it’s pretty easy to come up with several reasons that he’ll be less valuable than he was last year. Or at least less valuable than he would have been had he not been suspended.
First, he’s clearly past his peak and on the back side of the aging curve. Second, his BABIP is coming down from .373 and his average will fall along with it. Third, his new home park is 10% less favorable to right-handed home runs than his old home park was. Fourth, his strikeout rate rose sharply last year. And finally, he’s coming off a PED suspension. I’m sure people could come up with some reasons to like him, but none spring to mind, and I’d be surprised if any list of the good outweighed all that bad.
Rounding out the bench, Ellis will play a little second base and might even be a platoon partner with Wong depending on how Wong performs. But unless Wong completely falters, Ellis is unlikely to have any fantasy value outside of deep NL-only leagues. Tony Cruz will back up Molina but will have even less value than Ellis. Descalso will serve as the utility infielder and will also have next to no value. And, as mentioned, Craig will play a little first base, but Howard Bender covered him on Tuesday in his discussion of the Cardinals outfield.